It dominated his thoughts from the first time Jason “Ras” Vaughan heard of the Mount Rainier Infinity Loop.
“It was just one of those moments where I felt like a light shined on me and there should have been an angelic choir in the background,” Vaughan said of the moment last year when a former Mount Rainier ranger described the route to him.
On the evening of July 23, the 45-year-old Coupeville resident and Gavin Woody, a 39-year-old from Bellevue, left Paradise in an attempt to complete the Infinity Loop.
The Infinity Loop is actually a pair of side-by-side loops that form what looks like, with a little imagination, a sideways eight or the infinity symbol.
For the first loop the men would climb Rainier from Paradise, then descend to White River, where they would return to Paradise by running clockwise on the Wonderland Trail. Then they would traverse the mountain again and run the Wonderland counterclockwise back to Paradise.
120 The number of miles required to complete the Mount Rainier Infinity Loop. The Loop requires traversing the mountain twice and finishing the 93-mile Wonderland Trail.
The trip would cover 120 miles with 40,000 feet of climbing.
A typical weekend warrior might need more than a week to finish either loop. Vaughan and Woody, both accomplished outdoor athletes, needed 99 hours, 7 minutes for the entire project.
“It was a really rewarding and challenging experience,” Woody said.
The Infinity Loop was designed by Chad Kellogg, a legendary Northwest mountaineer known for pioneering new routes and setting speed records around the world.
In 2014, the former Mount Rainier National Park climbing ranger was killed during an expedition in Argentina.
Vaughan and Woody knew of Kellogg only from what they read in magazines and from stories told by mutual friends. But they both found him immensely motivating.
“I keep a quote from Chad on my mirror: ‘The story you tell yourself becomes your reality,’ ” Woody said. “I think that we as humans are far more capable than we might think. We just have to tell ourselves the right story.”
Kellogg, the first person to climb and descend Rainier in less than five hours, never attempted his Infinity Loop. Vaughan and Woody decided to do it in his honor and raise money (more than $5,000) for The Mountaineers Youth Programs.
“We want to forward and amplify that inspiration out to the next generation of adventurers,” Vaughan said.
Vaughan and Woody have résumés filled with impressive outdoor achievements, but they have much different backgrounds.
In his 20s, Vaughan drove a frozen food delivery truck in Bellingham. He said it wasn’t uncommon for him to eat a 24-pack of ice cream sandwiches during a shift. He weighed 260 pounds.
“If that guy could see me now, we wouldn’t even recognize each other,” Vaughan said.
He credits his wife, Kathy, and the Wonderland Trail for turning around his life. Kathy persuaded him to go hiking with her. He struggled. She persuaded him to hike the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around Rainier.
Most take 10-14 days. The Vaughans, traveling with their 7-year-old daughter in 2000, needed 21. He was hooked on hiking, and he quickly shaped his life around the trail. He says he works odd jobs to earn enough money for his next trip.
Now he’s done the Wonderland 11 times, including a trip in 2012 when he hiked the Wonderland twice — once in each direction — in less than 90 hours. He’s believed to be the only person to hike from rim to rim on the Grand Canyon six times on a single trip.
In 2010, Woody and two others completed what they called the Rainier Triple Threat. They biked from Seattle to Mount Rainier, climbed to the summit, ran the Wonderland Trail and then biked home.
“I’ve found this slow grinding endurance that is almost limitless,” said Vaughan.
Woody is vice president of operations for a senior living and elder care referral service, graduated from West Point, served as an Army Ranger and went to graduate school at Stanford.
After school he chose to move to Western Washington because it seemed like the ideal place to further his career and play in the mountains.
He’s the former president of The Mountaineers (and current chairman of the nominating committee) and participates in outdoor endurance competitions around the world. His competitions evolved from marathons and Ironman triathlons to 200-mile runs. Last summer he won the Big Foot 200 near Mount St. Helens.
He’s also completed something he calls the Rainier Triple Threat. For that trip, he and two others biked from Seattle to Mount Rainier, climbed to the summit, ran the Wonderland Trail and then biked home.
Both love running, climbing and testing themselves at Rainier, and the Infinity Loop was the ultimate test.
While the Infinity Loop might be a simple idea, just preparing for the trip takes considerable skill.
“Combining ultra distance travel with mountaineering gets into an area that doesn’t really have a name or gear that’s specifically manufactured for it,” Vaughan said. “That’s exactly what fascinates me. I like trouble shooting and finding a way to overcome.”
Vaughan and Woody spent days planning and choosing the perfect gear.
Their goal was to do each loop unsupported. This meant carrying every ounce of gear, food and trash. They’d get water only from natural sources such as creeks or by melting snow.
They studied and tested gear to find what would work for both mountaineering and trail running. They’d already learned that carrying mountaineering and trail running gear wasn’t the best plan.
Vaughan said his pack weighed 24 pounds for the first section of the Infinity Loop and 20 pounds for the second.
In 2015, Vaughan and a friend, Richard Kresser, attempted to circumnavigate and traverse the mountain in a single unassisted push. They traversed the mountain, but with 45-pound packs loaded down with mountaineering gear, they stopped after traveling the Wonderland back to their starting point.
Their gear for the Infinity Loop included lightweight ice axes, down pants and jackets, lightweight crampons, insulated and waterproof running shoes and rescue gear. They brought enough food for about 150 calories per hour. The fare ranged from energy bars to dried seaweed.
Fully loaded, their packs weighed 24 pounds at the start.
Woody said the low point of the adventure for him was when they found themselves short on water as they finished the first traverse of the mountain. “I was thinking, ‘Man, we’re not a quarter done with this yet,’ ” he said.
But Woody quickly got back into a groove and by the finish said both felt just about as strong as one could after such an expedition.
Both men derive quite a bit of pleasure from testing their minds and bodies in the mountains.
“My fascination is with trying to find my own limits,” Vaughan said.
Pushing hard for more than four days takes a toll on your body and your mind. But because they’ve been in those situations before, they were able to handle them well on this trip.
It’s almost like figuring out that you could fly when you never knew you could. Basically discovering the amazing ability that human beings have and being, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I’m a human being. I can do these things.’
Jason “Ras” Vaughan on the joy of testing the limits of his endurance
They stopped to take short naps on the side of the trail. They slept for four hours after completing the first loop.
And as the trip wound down they found themselves not thinking about the pain, but rather entranced by their surroundings.
“I was appreciating how beautiful the Wonderland Trail truly is,” Woody said.
“The Wonderland and Rainier are pretty much my favorite places on the planet,” Vaughan said. “I feel like I’m home.”
Shortly after finishing the Infinity Loop, Woody climbed a classic route in British Columbia’s Bugaboos. He’s running Italy’s 200-mile Tour de Geants starting Sept. 11.
Vaughan is planning a trip with his wife that will span several years. They want to make round trips on four classic desert trails, one of which they’ve already completed. Each trip is about 1,600 miles.
Both men never seem to tire of searching for their limits, especially when they don’t find them.
“It’s almost like figuring out that you could fly when you never knew you could,” Vaughan said. “Basically discovering the amazing ability that human being have and being, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I’m a human being. I can do these things.’ ”